One of the best things that happened in 2014 was that The Hobbit “trilogy” finally juddered to a halt, meaning those of us who feel obliged to see the films out of residual Lord of the Rings loyalty can get on with our lives in peace, at least until Peter Jackson finds his copy of The Silmarillion.
We meet lady elf warrior Tauriel in the second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. If it feels like she was shoehorned in, it’s because she was shoehorned in. The book of The Hobbit is an unrepentant Victorian boys’ club. So, this is positive right? Actively altering the source material to be more inclusive! One whole new female character in nine hours of rambling and unnecessarily drawn-out plot? You’re welcome, feminists!
As a rabid Tolkien nerd and a card-carrying feminist, I desperately wanted to be positive about this new female character, created for my presumed benefit. Sadly, Tauriel is a case study in how not to write and insert a new female character into a pre-existing world or story. The first and most obviously problem is that she’s suffering from a lethal case of Strong Female Character syndrome.
Of course, if you live in Ireland, you don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell you this. Our country is a live illustration of the trend. Every year, at least 3,500 Irish women (that’s an average of nine women per day) spend time, energy and money travelling to the UK to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Those who are unable to travel continue to turn to illegal “abortion pills” or even more drastic measures to end unwanted pregnancy – we’re not sure about their numbers, but it’s safe to assume they are not negligible.
For those of you who call yourselves “pro-life”, your one and only campaign point seems to be preserving our Constitution’s EighthAmendment at all costs. I’m sorry to inform you that your time and effort is sadly misplaced. Ireland is not and has never been “abortion-free”. Our blanket ban on abortion does little, if anything, to deter most women from ending unwanted pregnancy. And thanks to proximity of the United Kingdom and the 13th Amendment, most women in Ireland can access safe legal abortion if they really need to. (If they have the money, of course. And hold a passport that allows them to move freely between the UK and Ireland. And if they are healthy enough to travel. And not restricted by disabilities. And not younger than sixteen. And not trapped in abusive situation at home.)
All the evidence suggests that repealing our Eighth Amendment and replacing it with clear and humane legislation on reproductive rights will have a negligible impact on abortion rates among Irish women. Honestly, if you are truly invested in reducing abortion rates, preserving the Eighth is a bit of a damp squib.
But thankfully, there are lots of straightforward health and educational policies that are proven to reduce abortion rates! If you truly care about the welfare of Irish women (despite the frequently misogynistic tactics of your campaigns), there are plenty of ways to support them that don’t involve shaming or criminalizing them. If you are truly “pro-life”, there are many worthwhile causes that could use your voice behind them.
Vikings is a show that gets its women so very right that it never fails to send my shrivelled little feminist heart a-flutter with each new episode. Season 3 is exactly two weeks away, which is the perfect opportunity to vent some of my excitement by publishing a celebration of the ladies of Vikings that I’ve been sitting on for quite a while.
Before we begin, I want to point you towards Sophia McDougall’s excellent essay on the trope of the Strong Female Character, which is recommended background reading before we dive into Scandinavia circa 800 AD. McDougall’s view is that it’s limiting and reductive to evaluate female characters solely on their strength; especially when “strength” almost always means “being able to swing a sword” or “being feisty and not taking bullshit”. This essay forms the basis of a lot of my thinking on what makes a good female character. When I refer to a Strong Female Character in this post, I’m referring to the trope as outlined in McDougall’s work.
And without further ado, I give you my thoughts on the ladies of Vikings. SPOILER ALERTS FOR SEASONS 1 & 2 THROUGHOUT, so if you’re planning to watch the series and also need some excellent lady characters in your life, just take my word for it, go, go watch it right now, shoo!
It’s a tale as old as the internet. A piece of male douchery surfaces, one that perfectly epitomizes the harassment and male entitlement that women must navigate in their daily lives. The women gather together to gaze upon douchery and nod and say, “Yes, indeed, this really does sum up the problem.”
Cue the trolls, cue the misogynists, cue the willfully obtuse assholes. But also, cue Nice Guy™, who is hurt and confused by these women and their hostility, for he is sweet and gentle and thinks you really need to know how beautifully your eyes match your scarf today.
This guy will leave a long blathering comment (what is it about sexism that makes dudes so long-winded?) that boils down to: “Let’s make this entire conversation about educating me on how best to approach women in public. I would like a foolproof formula that doesn’t involve me actually thinking about women’s experiences or expending any empathy. Please and thank you.”
And more and more frequently, women reply with a simple “Yeah, maybe just…don’t?”
“Just don’t approach women in public? Like, why do you feel the need to talk to strange women? Maybe just don’t do it.”
Cue the rage.
“Fine, so I’m just not allowed to TALK to ANY WOMEN EVER!? HUFF PUFF FOOT STOMP.”
Or, sometimes, the wounded self-pity.
“But but but if I can’t talk to women in public places, I will be FOREVER ALONE WOE IS ME.”
There’s a lot of stupid in this argument, but I’d like to talk about the main stupid, which is the idea that modern romance – and consequently the human race – will somehow grind to a halt if men are not “allowed” to talk to women in public. You see, by not “allowing” men to talk to them in public, women are thwarting casual encounters, which are the only way people ever end up going on dates ever. If women are not actively seeking a meet-cute, Nice Guy™ is doomed to a life of impotently lusting after potential soulmates on every train platform, in every elevator, across the dusty vinyl sleeves in every quirky secondhand record shop in every city in the world.
Ted: I just gotta bump into her somewhere. Now if only I knew her schedule, I could arrange a chance encounter.
This idea is, obviously, ridiculous and has no bearing on reality outside of romantic comedies. (You know, those things that women purportedly base their lives around.) However, not only does it have no bearing on the reality of dating, it also actively clashes with the reality of being a woman in public.
“There are a lot of readers who pride themselves on not paying attention to the identities of their favorite writers. […] How many books by writers of color do you think you’ll find on their bookshelves? I’d lay odds that if there are any at all, they will be far outnumbered by the books by white authors. Not necessarily because those readers are deliberately choosing mostly white/male authors. They don’t have to. The status quo does it for them.”
#ReadWomen2014 is about challenging that status quo. At some point last year, I realised that despite the fact that I am a self-professed feminist nerd, my bookshelf is both on high on testosterone and blindingly white. I am not going to belch statistics about diversity in literature at you, because you can get them all here and that is not what this post is about. This post is about putting my money where my literary feminist mouth is. Spurred on by the launch of the Read Women campaign, I decided to do exactly that for 2014. Read women and only women for one full year.
Anyone who reads this blog or who has talked to me for more than five seconds knows how I feel about stories. I don’t think stories are simply a way of labeling and processing the world around us. I believe they shape the world around us, that they are the world both around us and within us. Narratives gain a foothold in our collective consciousness and gradually become a reality. Stories are how we explain ourselves to ourselves. And when it’s white men doing all the explaining, you end up with a story of a world where white men are the most important, the most influential, the most powerful, the most heroic, and anyone who is not white or male has trouble getting a word in edgeways.
I think studying English Literature (as I did) exacerbates the tendency to privilege the white male literary canon, especially if you are not (as I was not) a feminist. When you have five fat novels to read every week and you know there is a vanishingly small chance of getting through even half of them, you start prioritizing. And for some totally mysterious reason (*coughpatriarchy*), when it comes down to the wire, the indispensable texts, the keys to understanding the whole era/genre – and the ones that you absolutely must finish if you’re going to survive your next seminar or your end-of-term exams – those books always tend to be written by men. After four years, this hierarchy of importance and this vision of the canon became deeply ingrained in my ideas about what I should be reading.
I remember clearly the moment where I stopped thinking about what I should be reading, and started reading for pleasure again. It was August 2010, the summer after I graduated. I had been hawking around a cheap paperback copy of On The Road by Jack Keroauc, because what better book for a long lazy summer of freedom than a seminal travel novel from one of the greats of the Beat Generation? I’d had it in my rucksack for nearly three months, and it was dog-eared and stained, but I was still only around three-quarters of the way through. Every time I had an opportunity to sit down and read it, I would find something else to occupy my time. However, this day was a sunny day and I wandered out into the garden of my parents’ house with a blanket and a glass of cranberry juice and On The Road tucked under my arm, grimly determined to finish the damn thing.
Earlier this year, I read an essay called Shining a Light on Cutoff Culture. It’s almost four thousand words long and before I was halfway through, my shoulders were drawn up around my ears and my head was vibrating with ill-defined rage. Fortunately, Captain Awkward chose to tackle it on her blog and helped me pinpoint exactly why this essay made me so deeply uncomfortable. It took me a long time to sort my thoughts out on this one, but here is my letter to the man who wrote that essay.
You claim to be trying to shine on a light the dangers of cutoff culture. But here is the thing.
Most women do not live in a cutoff culture. Far from it. Let me tell you a bit about the kind of culture women live in when it comes to dating, relationships and sex. Your essay extrapolated from an example from your own personal experience, so I’ll give you one from mine:
Hi pals! It’s been a while since I’ve updated, because things were very crazy at work, and then I was on holidays, and then I had roughly seven draft posts kind of halfway ready to go and just got paralysed and overwhelmed and decided I needed to lie down because blogging that’s just how it goes. Anyway. Here are some recent and not-so-recent articles I found equally entertaining and enlightening in the past month!
Patriarchy in action: the New York Times rewrites history Reclusive Leftist neatly busts open the myth that women have never invented anything or contributed to scientific advancement, then smashes it with a sledgehammar and throws the shards of patriarchal bullshit into the roaring furnace of common fucking sense.
Georgia Salpa, Catholic Guilt and Ireland’s Weird Misogyny The awesome Roisin Kiberd examines Ireland’s specific brand of “kitsch misogyny” as it manifests in Irish Models (not to be confused with models who happen to be Irish) “who occupy an uneasy cultural space between nation’s sweethearts and national joke.”
No one is paying for my birth control but me A lot of people in the US are wringing their hands over employers having to “pay for birth control” for their slutty slutty female employees. That is to say, a lot of people in the US don’t seem to understand how their own incredibly fucked up health insurance system works.
All lead actors in The Gods of Egypt will be white because of course they will. But it doesn’t matter! Because race doesn’t matter! As long as all the main characters are white! This article is also a pretty good rundown of some of the more egregious cases of whitewashing in Hollywood’s recent history.
Manfeels Park is a webcomic that finds comments from real “hurt and confused men with Very Important Things To Explain”… and turns them into conversations between Jane Austen characters. And why yes, it is my new favourite thing on the Internet ever, in case you had to ask.
How to be PoliteAn entertaining and thoughtful personal essay on the “stubborn power of politeness”. As someone who is usually quite polite, but occasionally not polite AT ALL – and as a woman, which means my bog-standard politeness is often interpreted as a) a sign that I am a doormat or b) an invitation to touch my leg – it gave me a lot to think about.